Church Not Responsible for Injuries Sustained by “Beneficiary”

New Jersey “charitable immunity” law cited in case.

Church Law and Tax 1995-03-01 Recent Developments

Personal Injuries – On Church Property or During Church Activities

Key point: Some states protect charities from being sued by the beneficiaries of their services who are injured or damaged as a result of those services. The fact that a charity in such a state carries liability insurance will not necessarily affect its immunity from liability.

A New Jersey court dismissed a lawsuit brought against a church by a member injured on church premises on the basis of a state charitable immunity law that immunizes charities from liability for injuries sustained by “beneficiaries”. A Presbyterian church planned a fund-raising dinner. The local fire marshall informed the church that its kitchen would need to be enlarged before it could prepare the dinner. Four members of the church (including an elder) were appointed to coordinate and oversee the renovation. As the elder was driving by the church one day, she noticed the electrical contractor’s truck in the church parking lot. Remembering a matter she needed to discuss with the electrical contractor, the elder drove into the church parking lot, parked her car, and entered the church. As she was walking down the stairs to see the contractor, she fell and was injured. She sued the church, claiming that her injuries were caused by her church’s negligence. The church asked the court to dismiss the case on the basis of a New Jersey “charitable immunity” law specifying that “[n]o nonprofit corporation … organized exclusively for religious, charitable, educational or hospital purposes shall … be liable to respond in damages to any person who shall suffer damages from the negligence of any agent or servant of such corporation … where such person is a beneficiary, to whatever degree, of the works of such nonprofit corporation ….” The trial court dismissed the case on the ground that the elder was a “beneficiary” of the church and accordingly the church could not be liable to her. The elder appealed, and a state appeals court agreed with the trial court’s dismissal of the case. The court observed that “we agree … that when [the elder] was injured, she was a ‘beneficiary to whatever degree, of the works’ of the defendant church …. The statutory language clearly immunizes a charitable organization from the tort claim of a member of the organization who has been injured while working as a volunteer for its benefit.” This case will be relevant to churches and other religious organizations in New Jersey, as well as those other states that have a similar charitable immunity provision. George v. First United Presbyterian Church, 639 A.2d 1128 (Super. A.D. 1994).

See Also: Negligence as a Basis for Liability – Defenses

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